NEWS ORLEANS — Pau Gasol yearned for this moment when nothing could get in his way.
Not reduced roles. Not wobbly knees. Not trade rumors. Not a coach intent on playing him away from the basket instead of the post.
Gasol has everything he needs this season to become the player he once was as a two-time NBA champion, a two-time silver medalist in the Olmypic games and a four-time All-Star. But as he’s painfully learned in the Lakers’ 96-85 loss Friday to the New Orleans Pelicans at New Orleans Arena, it’s quite a different dynamic between being a complementary player alongside Kobe Bryant than being the leader whose production largely fuels the team success.
With Gasol posting only nine points on 3 of 12 shooting and little effectiveness on offsetting Anthony Davis’ 32 points, it should hardly be surprising the Lakers ended their 11-game winning streak against New Orleans and coughed up a chance to deliver a regular-season sweep for the fourth consecutive season. What seems surprising, though, involves how Gasol would have such a disappearing act in the first place.
“I don’t know,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said. “It didn’t seem like he had it tonight.”
Gasol’s struggles go beyond New Orleans though.
They go back the past four games against Atlanta, Dallas and Houston where he hasn’t shot above 50 percent. Gasol still overcame those struggles in different ways. Gasol made two clutch free throws and blocked Kyle Korver’s potential game-winner last week against Atlanta. Though he only shot 1 of 10 against the Rockets, Gasol played a large part in holding Dwight Howard to an average 15 points and 14 rebounds. Against New Orleans, Davis’ fourth-quarter block and subsequent fast-break dunk that capped the Pelicans’ 10-0 run that gave them a 98-81 lead with 1:32 remaining epitomized Gasol’s ineffectiveness. Not even Chris Kaman’s 16 points on seven of 13 shooting could cover up Gasol’s struggles.
“I just didn’t play very smart against a good defensive player that uses his length and athleticism,” Gasol said. “I just kept going to the same move without making adjustments. That’s something a player with my experience shouldn’t do.”
Gasol has always remained confident in his strengths, aware of his weaknesses and equally honest and humble about his game. But very few times has Gasol and a failure to play smart ever registered. Everyone from D’Antoni, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, Bryant and Kaman have tabbed Gasol as one of the league’s best centers for all the same reasons. Gasol’s superior fundamentals with his footwork, passing, post presence and mid-range jumpers. His unselfishness. His ability to play different roles.
Perhaps that’s why Gasol’s teammates offered little concern.
Lakers guard Steve Blake coughed Gasol’s struggles up as a small sample size.
“He’ll be all right,” Blake said. “He’ll get it going. I’ve had stretches like that. You just have to stay positive. We know how great he is. He’ll get back without a doubt.”
Kaman continued to gush about Gasol’s diverse skillset.
“Pau is so talented. I don’t think anyone needs to worry about this,” Kaman said. “The guy is one of the most skilled men I had the opportunity to play with and everything in general. He just needs to continue to fight, play hard. I’m not even worried about it. He has so much ability and can do so many different things.”
It concerns Gasol, though.
Gasol has only averaged 12.5 points on 36.8 percent shooting and 10.7 rebounds in 27.8 minutes. It’s hard to believe, but those numbers are actually worse than his career-lows last season when he averaged 13.7 points on 46.6 percent shooting in 33.8 minutes. As Gasol painfully remembers, last season coincided with a reduced role and various ailments that sidelined him for 33 games.
“It bothers me. It frustrates me,” Gasol said. “I’m going to continue to try. We’re going to continue to try as a team and unit. We can’t do it individually. But I understand the responsibility within the team. It’s pretty obvious. I have to be sharper. I just got to play a little smarter. I might not have all the speed and all the explosiveness I used to have years ago. But I still have to use my experience and fundamentals to be effective every single night regardless of who we’re playing.”
That’s because it’s fair to think Gasol’s more capable playing productively than it is to assume other scenarios taking place. Such as the Lakers’ various role players having double-digit performances. Or the Lakers’ consistently hitting three-pointers. It sounded even more discouraging that Kaman’s solution entailed stating the obvious: “We need Kobe Bryant come back sooner or later.”
“Especially in late game situations, you need some guy who has the ball and gets you buckets and scoring. That’s what is Kobe is known for and good at. He’s a killer at the end. We have to hold the fort down. Hopefully we can hold the fort down while he’s gone and get us above .500 before he gets back. It’ll help set us up at the end of the season.
Kaman offered one solution.
“We need to make him more of a passer and playmaker for us because that’s what he is really good at,” Kaman said of Gasol. “He’ll get there. Pau is working himself into even better shape and can get a better feel. I’m not really worried about him. I think he’ll be fine.”
The Lakers sure hope so. Their success depends on it.
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org